Sunday, January 19, 2020

New Podcast: Should Novelists Follow Screenwriting Advice, featuring Parker Peevyhouse

Hi everybody, we’re about to do our year-end wrap-up, but first we’ve got a new podcast, and it’s a good one!  We have a special guest appearance from novelist Parker Peevyhouse!   She has two acclaimed novels and a third one that’s coming out this week, and she proposed stopping by with a juicy question: Should novelists follow screenwriting advice?  The result is a pretty great episode where we really get to the heart of what this podcast is about!  (And James has a proposed addition to Believe Care Invest!)

Monday, January 13, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Rahel in Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things”

  • The Indian Province of Kerala in 1992: 29 year old Rahel returns after many years away to help her troubled twin brother Estha. She quickly becomes overwhelmed with memories of different times, including the death of a girl named Sophie Mol when Rahel and Estha were 7.
Though this novel is also assigned in high schools, it requires the most out of its readers of any of those we’re looking at. Post-colonial writers have literally had the ground ripped out from under their feet, leaving them unmoored in time and space, and modern literary masters like Roy attempt to capture that condition in prose.  Complex literary fiction challenges the reader, but in a book such as this one, those readers that rise to the challenge are richly rewarded.

Believe: It’s easy to believe in the reality of this world because every line of the book explodes with vivid, unique imagery that literally brings this world to life: The first line is, “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month,” then we hear that “the countryside turns an immodest green.” Months brood, colors have feelings—everything is alive in this world.

But what really makes the novel seem so utterly real us is the way it intimately captures the crazy logic of childhood. Our own childhoods may not have been as traumatic as Rahel’s, but Roy captures with startling intimacy the way a 7 year-old thinks. To read the book to is to feel like a child again, not in an aw-shucks kind of way, but in an “Oh, right, childhood was weird” kind of way. Rahel is convinced that she would have gotten free bus rides for life if she had been born on a bus, and she’s convinced that the government pays for your funeral if you die in a zebra crossing. That’s harmless enough …but she’s also convinced that Sophie is still alive in her coffin, which is less so.

Care: It will take us a while to understand every trauma that happened in those terrible two weeks in 1969, but we do get just a sense in these first ten pages of each of the various traumas that still have both Rahel and Estha in their grip:
  1. The Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did something to Estha (which we can already correctly guess to be molestation)
  2. Their cousin Sophie Mol drowned, and perhaps they’re to blame
  3. A man named Velutha seems to have been killed by the police because of Sophie’s death, and perhaps the kids are to blame for that as well due to some further sin of theirs.
  4. As a result of all of the above, the closer-than-close twins were sent to live in different cities until now.
  5. Estha stopped speaking not long thereafter and has never spoken since.
These traumas have fractured Rahel’s sense of self, and they’ve also fractured her perception (and therefore our perception) of these events, so we get sections like this:
  • In those early amorphous years when memory had only just begun, when life was full of Beginnings and no Ends, and Everything was Forever, Esthappen and Rahel thought of themselves together as Me, and separately, individually, as We or Us. As though they were a rare breed of Siamese twins, physically separate, but with joint identities.
  • Now, these years later, Rahel has a memory of waking up one night giggling at Estha’s funny dream.
  • She has other memories too that she has no right to have.
  • She remembers, for instance (though she hadn’t been there), what the Orangedrink Lemondrink Man did to Estha in Abhilash Talkies. She remembers the taste of the tomato sandwiches—Estha’s sandwiches, that Estha ate—on the Madras Mail to Madras.
  • And these are only the small things.
From such tangles of memory we have to pick out the salient details and arrange them into a timeline, and we are increasing horrified as it all falls into place.  What is pervasive right away is the feeling of loss and trauma, and that makes us care deeply.

Invest: Like any good hero, Rahel shows up on page one on a heroic mission.  Her brother has finally come home, there’s something wrong with him, and she must come home as well to try and fix him. Most of the pages will be devoted to her fractured memories of what happened to them in those two weeks in 1969, but we will regularly check in on her modern day attempts to get through to Estha, which she will do …in a fashion.  It is only because we are invested in this modern-day mission that we are willing to do the hard work of piecing together their past.

But of course, as with most literary fiction, we are really rooting for Rahel to deal with her own pain. As she and we sort through the shattered pieces of her traumatized psyche, we feel a shared sense of accomplishment. We have to struggle to piece together a coherent story, which can make for a frustrating reading experience, but ultimately, those who do the work the novel requires will feel all the more bonded to the heroine, because she is undergoing the same struggle. She and we are working together to make sense of her life, and we feel a shared sense of accomplishment as the jigsaw pieces slowly click together. Of course, as with any old jigsaw puzzle, we’ll never find all the pieces, but we’ll have enough in the end to get a sense of the total picture.

Thursday, January 09, 2020

Believe Care Invest: Sethe and Others in Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”

  • A rural area outside Cincinatti, Ohio in 1873: Escaped slave Sethe is haunted by her baby’s ghost. Baby Suggs, the mother-in-law who originally owned her house, has died and her two sons have run away in fear of the ghost, leaving her alone with her quiet 18 year old daughter Denver. Paul D, an old acquaintance from her plantation days, stops by and quickly realizes the house is haunted. He banishes the ghost and becomes Sethe’s lover. 
Like all of the other books in this section, this was a bestseller, but unlike those, it won its writer a Pulitzer and Nobel Prize. It’s a tough read about the most painful fact of American history, but it’s also a compelling ghost story. It has horrific atrocities, but it’s also, in some ways, an uplifting love story. You can read it in high school, or a book group, but you can also write a dozen doctoral theses about it.

Believe: Morrison has a lot of big jobs in front of her. As with any novelist, she must describe thing with unique similes we haven’t read before (a gravestone is “pink as a fingernail”), then she must make the 19th century come to life with details unique to that century (slop jars, a kettleful of chickpeas, the house’s “keeping room”), then she must make the horrors of slavery come alive (the scars on Sethe’s back are in the shape of a “chokecherry tree”) and ideally she can do all three in one phrase, such as when we hear that one of Sethe’s memories is “as lifeless as the nerves in her back where the skin buckled like a washboard”

Morrison’s utter unique character descriptions are perfect models of efficiency. Here’s how Paul D. sees Sethe: “A face too still for comfort; irises the same color as her skin, which, in that still face, used to make him think of a mask with mercifully punched out eyes.” Here’s how Sethe sees Paul D: “Except for a heap more hair and some waiting in his eyes, he looked the way he had in Kentucky. Peachstone skin; straight-backed.”

One way to make characters feel unique is to give them things they won’t normally do, and then we know the significance of a change in that behavior. Denver notes that Paul D. is “someone her mother wanted to talk to and would even consider talking to while barefoot.” Sethe has unique values that define her, and then she makes an exception, showing how these events are shifting her world.

Already in these first ten pages, we totally believe in the reality of this world. We sense that Morrison surely must have been there in person to have noticed all these odd little details that no one could just make up.

Care: On the one hand, these characters are very easy to care about. They are, after all, the victims of America’s greatest atrocity. Who in our history has suffered more than they? But Morrison knows that it’s hard to conceive of the horror of slavery. Most of her readers had seen “Roots” ten years earlier, so they knew about the vicious whippings, the omnipresent rape, and having your children sold away from you, and they were inured to it. But of course slavery is an unending fount of horror, and Morrison used her research to gouge through the calloused skin of her readers and make the wounds fresh.

Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs has had all of her eight children taken from her. How can we conceive of the magnitude of that? The horror comes alive when she says, “My first-born. All I can remember of her is how she loved the burned bottom of bread. Can you beat that?” The fact that she only has one memory of the toddler that was taken from her is staggering, but the memory is fascinatingly bizarre (and thus convincing). Likewise, Morrison knows she must confront the reality of rape, but she must make the horror fresh. For Sethe, what made it so horrific was that she was nursing at the time and “they took my milk.”

In the modern day story, things are going better for Sethe, as a lover emerges as if from nowhere and eases her burden a little, but we only believe in this relationship because it’s not as easy as it should be. Sethe is amazed to see Paul D. and asks “Is that you?” to which he honesty answers, “What’s left.” Later, she says, “You could stay the night, Paul D,” and he parries with “You don't sound too steady in the offer.” Neither feels entitled to happiness and they’re wary of it. She recalls that he’s always “treated her to a mild brotherly flirtation, so subtle you had to scratch for it.” Even when the romance develops quickly, as it does in this book, always make your heroes scratch for it a bit, and we’ll care about the relationship so much more.

Invest: Of course, the ghost story of course also need unique details, to separate it from a million other ghost stories. Here the ghost-baby picks on their poor dog, which is named “Here Boy”, and Denver remembers Sethe’s fierce reaction:
  • And when the baby’s spirit picked up Here Boy and slammed him into the wall hard enough to break two of his legs and dislocate his eye, so hard he went into convulsions and chewed up his tongue, still her mother had not looked away. She had taken a hammer, knocked the dog unconscious, wiped away the blood and saliva, pushed his eye back in his head and set his leg bones. He recovered, mute and off-balance, more because of his untrustworthy eye than his bent legs, and winter, summer, drizzle or dry, nothing could persuade him to enter the house again.
We will read much more about the remarkable (and occasionally disturbing) resilience Sethe has shown over the years …but do we really invest our hopes and dreams in Sethe in these opening pages? Not really. And we’re right not to do so. About half of the book takes place in flashback, and in those sections “iron-eyed” Sethe will show epic heroism, but in the modern day story, Sethe has lost all willingness to stand up the vengeful ghost that rules her house, and she will continue to cling desperately to it even past the book’s climax where Beloved is finally banished.

No, in these opening chapters, we invest our hopes in Paul D, which is easy enough to do, as he shows traditionally manly traits and stands up to the ghost right away:
  • A table rushed toward him and he grabbed its leg. Somehow he managed to stand at an angle and, holding the table by two legs, he bashed it about, wrecking everything, screaming back at the screaming house. “You want to fight, come on! God damn it! She got enough without you. She got enough!” The quaking slowed to an occasional lurch, but Paul D did not stop whipping the table around until everything was rock quiet.
That’s pretty easy to invest in. But, as it will turn out, Beloved will return in the flesh, and Paul D, too, will ultimately be unequal to the task of defeating her for good.  It is meek Denver who will do what is necessary to purge Beloved from the house, but we don’t sense that yet, which is fine. As long as we have characters to root for early on, we don’t mind if the real hero turns out to be one we didn’t pick.

Sunday, January 05, 2020

Believe, Care, Invest: Our Choice of Heroes in George R. R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones”

  • The fantasy kingdom of Westeros: Three rangers patrol north of “The Wall” and encounter ice zombies. One survives and flees, but he is caught south of the wall and executed for desertion by Lord Eddard Stark. We see this through the eyes of Eddard’s young son Bran. On the way home, the Starks find a litter of direwolves and adopt them.
Massive spoilers for the book series and TV show! Skip to the next chapter if you don’t want to know how it all ends!

It’s fascinating to re-read this first chapter, knowing what we know now.  For the past twenty years, readers have been saying to themselves, “Why do we start with Bran?? He’s such a minor character!” Little did we suspect that he would win the game of thrones! Maybe Martin knew what he was doing all along.

But before we get to Bran, we start with a prologue. As with “Hitchhiker’s”, these pages are not yet identified as “Chapter One”, so we sense that we need not fall in love with these characters, but this prologue is longer, so if we didn’t find the characters and situation compelling we’d probably stop reading.

Ultimately, we will realize that these opening pages prefigure the whole series. Our POV character watches as a grizzled old veteran ranger, whose sword is “nicked from hard use,” is led into disaster by a “lordling” whose sword has never “been swung in anger” (the ultimate insult in this manly world). Over the course of the next three books, both the North and South of Westeros will be led into disaster by too-young lords that are ill-prepared for leadership.

We never find out enough the prologue’s POV character Will to Believe-Care-Invest, but we certainly do so for the veteran Gerad, who gets lots of details, suffers mightily, and shows his clever skills. We even come to appreciate the lordling Royce who, in a nice ironic turn, dies bravely. We sense that these aren’t our heroes, and don’t really invest our hopes and dreams in them, but we can tell from these pages that Martin can make us identify with heroes, if he wants to, and we trust him going forward.

Another thing this intro establishes is Martin’s greatest strength: his ability to put the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. Over and over in this series, Martin will fool the reader into thinking that the heroes will triumph, only for something awful to happen. The most essential line in this introduction is this:
  • For a moment, he dared to hope.
That’s a dead-simple trick that any writer can use: Just insert that line into your book, as often as possible. Lift the reader up, then cut them down. Martin has a curiously sadistic relationship to his readers. Perhaps more than any other popular writer, he really likes to torture his heroes (to death), which also tortures the readers who love those characters …but we love him for it. He triggers a pleasurable masochism within the reader. Every time Martin tricks us into daring to hope, then viciously punishes us for it, we get a thrill.

But we still haven’t met any main characters, so let’s move on to Chapter 1, which is named “Bran.” Right away, we start getting a little nervous: We find out in the first paragraph that Bran is seven years old! Is this a kids book? It doesn’t seem so from the page count. Martin is basically counting on us to flip ahead and see that the book’s 73 chapters will be credited to 8 different third-person POVs, and Bran will only get 7 of those chapters. We sense that Bran is not going to solve the book’s big problems, so we need not fully invest our hopes and dreams in him.

So Martin has a tricky task, we’re meeting our main cast now, but we’re meeting them though the POV of a (seemingly) minor character. His goal in the first real chapter is to get us to believe in and care for this family, and then, through Bran’s eyes, search for some member of the family other than Bran that we can invest our hopes and dreams in.

Believe In: After reading the prologue we already believe in the reality of this world. Martin is mostly Italian-American and grew up in a New Jersey housing project in the 1960s, and yet he convinces that surely he must have lived in medieval England at some point with his wealth of detail.

And Bran is a believable seven year old: Eager to be included in adult things but anxious about what he might see. We are told it’s been summer for nine years but winter is coming, so seven year old Bran is about to know the cold for the first time, which is a metaphor for the chilling step into reality we all must take on the brink of adolescence.

Care For: This is tricky because Bran is not suffering all that much. Sure, he feels cold, and he’s being forced to watch a man being beheaded, which disturbs him, and later he almost has to watch some wolf-puppies put to death... but the real reason we care about Bran is because we sense, from reading the prologue, that the ice-zombies will eventually come for him, and he’s so terribly unaware of this. (In fact they will come just for him, though those who stick to the books may never find that out). We care for him because we can see what he can’t see.

The novel’s multiple-POV structure ensures that we will always know more about what’s going on than any of the POV characters we’re reading about, not just plot-wise, but also morally. We know from the prologue that the deserter had a good reason to flee, which none of the Starks bother to elicit. Each POV-jump for the rest of the book will follow this pattern. There will never be a character that understands this world as fully as the reader does. Only we can see the ironic contrasts between these points of view. Only we know how tragic all of these events truly are. We care about these characters in an almost godly way: What fools these mortals be.

Invest In: We’re in an odd position: We discover that we were correct not invest our hopes in any of the characters from the prologue, and we can’t really invest in a seven year old boy, but we can tell that the Starks are going to be our main characters, so we examine them through Bran’s eyes, looking for a hero.

The most obvious choice is Eddard, who seems like a manly and responsible Lord in his insistence on being the one who swings the beheading sword himself. And if we’ve flipped ahead, we know that he will have the most POV chapters. But we also can see that Eddard has a limited perspective. He dismisses what Will has to say without really listening, leaving his kingdom eventually vulnerable to zombie attack. And of course, as fantasy readers, we’re conditioned to seek out young heroes so we’re also looking at his sons, whether adopted, blood, or bastard.

It’s easy to dismiss Theon Greyjoy, Eddard’s ward:

  • The head bounced off a thick root and rolled. It came up near Greyjoy’s feet. Theon was a lean, dark youth of nineteen who found everything amusing. He laughed, put his boot on the head, and kicked it away.

But it’s not so easy to choose between Eddard’s bastard son Jon or his official heir Robb:
  • “Ass,” Jon muttered, low enough so Greyjoy did not hear. He put a hand on Bran’s shoulder, and Bran looked over at his bastard brother. “You did well,” Jon told him solemnly. Jon was fourteen, an old hand at justice.
  • It seemed colder on the long ride back to Winterfell, though the wind had died by then and the sun was higher in the sky. Bran rode with his brothers, well ahead of the main party, his pony struggling hard to keep up with their horses.
  • “The deserter died bravely,” Robb said. He was big and broad and growing every day, with his mother’s coloring, the fair skin, red-brown hair, and blue eyes of the Tullys of Riverrun. “He had courage, at the least.”
  • “No,” Jon Snow said quietly. “It was not courage. This one was dead of fear. You could see it in his eyes, Stark.” Jon’s eyes were a grey so dark they seemed almost black, but there was little they did not see. He was of an age with Robb, but they did not look alike. Jon was slender where Robb was muscular, dark where Robb was fair, graceful and quick where his half brother was strong and fast.
  • Robb was not impressed. “The Others take his eyes,” he swore. “He died well. Race you to the bridge?”
In the introduction it was easy enough to choose between the two men that were being described: Gerad was full of manly virtues and the lordling Royce was not. Here, it’s harder: Robb and Jon offer two different visions of manhood that both seem equally appealing at this point. Ultimately, we (correctly) invest more in Jon, because he perceives more of what we know, and shows more compassion to Bran, but it will take three long books before we can be sure we’ve made the right choice.

Of course, on some level, the moral of the prologue lingers in our minds: Don’t trust lordlings like Robb. They’ll get you killed.

As with any fantasy author, Martin is asking a lot of his readers: He’s asking us to commit to a long book with lots of characters. In the end, this book will not end satisfactorily, demanding we read the next and the next in a search for satisfaction that will never end, because it’s more than two decades later and it seems likely Martin will never finish the book series.

Ultimately, there’s only one reason to read this series: Because it is pleasurable to read each chapter. Martin will not honor the pledges that most authors make to their readers, but we will forgive him for that, because the books are so enjoyable.

Friday, January 03, 2020

Celebrating 10 Years

Hi guys, new material resumes in a few days, but first I should note that I failed to note a significant milestone: Monday marked the 10th Anniversary of this blog, which began as a New Years / New Decades resolution on January 1st, 2010.  That first year was mostly Underrated Movies and odd miscellany, but already by the end of the year Id started posting writing advice and began our long, strange trip.  Thanks to those of you who might have been around since the beginning, and thanks to our more recent readers!

Sunday, December 15, 2019

New Podcast: Involuntary Notes

Two episodes ago, the edit was running super-long, so I snipped off the Free Story Idea.  That was for the best, because James gave me such good notes that I later chose to turn it into a beatsheet.  James had previously turned one of my Free Story Ideas into a screenplay and submitted it to my critique in our Laika episode, and he's been after me to do the same, so I figured why not?

So now you’ll get to hear that Free Story Idea you never got to hear, followed by me returning a few weeks later and submitting my beatsheet to James’ scrutiny.  In both cases, things are surprisingly constructive with lots of yes-anding.  I think we make some good progress, and I’ve had subsequent thoughts I may add in the comments after I let you guys chime in.

By the way, the comment section from our previous podcast on the Moment of Grace is still going strong with 26 comments so far, so feel free to keep that discussion going as well!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

  • A British suburb in 1979: 30-something BBC employee Arthur Dent wakes up with a hangover, then suddenly remembers that bulldozers are coming to tear down his house to build a bypass. He lays down in the mud to stop them, but soon his friend Ford Prefect, who is secretly an alien, comes along and convinces him to go out drinking at a pub instead, because the world is about to end, and they’ll have to be drunk to hitch a ride off the planet.

This book actually begins with a few pages about Earth and its unawareness of the existence of the titular ebook. These pages establish that we’ll have an omniscient voice with a wonderfully funny and skewed point of view. We love it, but we still long for a hero we can identify with. We’re not too worried, though, because what we’re reading is in italics, and if we flip ahead a few pages, we’ll note that “Chapter 1” hasn’t begun yet, so we know our real hero is still coming.

Then chapter one begins and we meet Arthur. Continuing with the omniscient voice, we can see what hungover Arthur doesn’t: That his house is surrounded by bulldozers. The fact that the narrative voice is omniscient prepares us for the long sections where we’ll leave Arthur behind to jump across the galaxy, but Adams knows that, in order to get us to commit to the book, we’ll need a hero to believe in, care for, and invest in, and we’re about to meet a wonderful example.

So why do we quickly come to identify with Arthur Dent?

Believe: In the first paragraph of chapter one, we get the following description of Arthur’s house:

  • It was about thirty years old, squattish, squarish, made of brick, and had four windows set in the front of a size and proportion which more or less exactly failed to please the eye.

By the time the book ends, we’ll learn that the meaning of life is 42, which is to say that this is a book that will derive humor from attempts to quantify the unquantifiable and it’s already doing that here: how can windows exactly fail to please the eye? It’s absurd, but it’s also endearing, because we know what he means. Finding out about the house’s imperfections makes us more concerned that it will be torn down, because now it feels real to us.

We then meet Arthur and find out, “the thing that used to worry him most was the fact that people always used to ask him what he was looking so worried about.” This is a universal emotion we’ve never heard described before in quite that way, which is the always the goal.

Care: It’s pretty easy to care for Arthur. After all, his planet is about to be destroyed to make way for a galactic highway! Of course that’s a little big for Arthur or the reader to conceive of, but it just so happens that Arthur is already dealing with an exactly analogous situation: His Earth house is about to be torn down to build an Earth highway.

In order to bond us with Arthur, Adams must make this as exasperating as possible, and once again, he achieves this through outrageous absurdity. As Arthur lies in the mud, he spars with the foreman in charge of tearing down his house:

  • “But Mr. Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”
  • “Oh yes, well, as soon as I heard I went straight round to see them, yesterday afternoon. You hadn’t exactly gone out of your way to call attention to them, had you? I mean, like actually telling anybody or anything.”
  • “But the plans were on display …”
  • “On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”
  • “That’s the display department.”
  • “With a flashlight.”
  • “Ah, well, the lights had probably gone.”
  • “So had the stairs.”
  • “But look, you found the notice, didn’t you?”
  • “Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard.’”

It’s too absurd to be remotely realistic, but we still strongly identify with Arthur’s frustration because this feels like the sort of thing we’ve all been through when dealing with bureaucracy.

Invest: Ultimately, Arthur will hardly be a bad-ass in this series, but Adams knows he must get us to invest in his hero right away, so Arthur starts out by doing the bravest thing he’ll do in the whole saga: blocking a bulldozer with his body. This is a hero! If he just stood there stammering while they tore his house down, we wouldn’t bond with him. Of course, in the next chapter, he’ll basically just stammer as another foreman destroys his planet, but we know that, when he could act, he did.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games”

  • Rural Appalachia in a dystopian future: Katniss Everdeen gets up early while her mother and little sister sleep, slips out of the electric fence surrounding their village, and goes out to hunt wild game with a bow and arrow.

As I point out in my first book, Suzanne Collins doesn’t fit the popular narrative of the overnight success Cinderella story. She started out with a five book series about a kingdom of cockroaches that sold respectably. But then she dug down and hit gold, narratively and financially. She realized that the legend of Theseus (Evil king demands that teens be summoned to take place in deadly games) might resonate with today’s teens, transposed it to a dystopian future, and crafted a powerful new fable.

I think that Collins’ greatest inspiration was that there was a generation that was aging out of the Harry Potter books and was now craving something super-dark, and she was prepared to give it to them. So how does she convince these former-Harry-lovers to embrace a new type of heroine?

The late Blake Snyder wrote three great books of writing advice that are still widely disseminated today, but I have a problem with his central piece of advice, that heroes should be introduced by a selflessly heroic moment in which they “Save the Cat.” “The Hunger Games” takes a different path. Let’s look at the third paragraph:

  • Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat. Mashed-in nose, half of one ear missing, eyes the color of rotting squash. Prim named him Buttercup, insisting that his muddy yellow coat matched the bright flower. He hates me. Or at least distrusts me. Even though it was years ago, I think he still remembers how I tried to drown him in a bucket when Prim brought him home. Scrawny kitten, belly swollen with worms, crawling with fleas. The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed. But Prim begged so hard, cried even, I had to let him stay. It turned out okay. My mother got rid of the vermin and he’s a born mouser. Even catches the occasional rat. Sometimes, when I clean a kill, I feed Buttercup the entrails. He has stopped hissing at me.

I guess you could say she saves a cat …from her own murderous impulses. But she still describes her as disgustedly as she possibly can!

So why do we like this cruel heroine? Just from this one paragraph, we already believe, care and invest:

Believe: This one paragraph does a great job showing a consistent worldview. The syntax is consistent terse (“He hates me. Or at least distrusts me.”). Her value judgments show her character (“he’s a born mouser”). Her idea of showing kindness is to share the entrails of her kill. She doesn’t seem like an accumulation of author-imposed traits. She seems like a fully-realized human, albeit an unpleasant one.

Care: She’s clearly suffering and doing what she can to survive (“The last thing I needed was another mouth to feed.”) If she was living a comfortable life in the suburbs, we would hate her for wanting to kill a cat, but seeing her hunger, our heart goes out to her. We wonder what we would do.

Invest: We definitely trust her to solve whatever challenges this book offers. She’s bad-ass, and she’s ready to make hard decisions. Shortly after this, still on page one, she slips though an electrified fence to bow-hunt her own food. We’ve picked the right hero!

Don’t worry, Katniss does get a chance to kill a cat a few pages later:

  • Then when this crazy lynx started following me around the woods looking for handouts, it became his official nickname for me. I finally had to kill the lynx because he scared off game. I almost regretted it because he wasn’t bad company. But I got a decent price for his pelt.

All of this cat killing ironically sets us up for her one big moment of selflessness later. If Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games because she was a super-nice person, we wouldn’t buy it. It’s only because she’s so vicious that it’s believable and compelling.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

Believe Care Invest: Stanley Yelnats in Louis Sachar’s “Holes”

  • A desert prison-camp for boys in 1998: 12 year old Stanley Yelnats is brought out by bus to be processed, and thinks about all the terrible luck that led him there. He arrives and meets Mr. Sir, who tells him how bad things will be.

As with the last two examples, this is the first novel some kids read on their own, and it’s wildly entertaining, but it’s also steeped in the tragedies of American history. Our white hero is falsely accused and arrested, which is to say that he’s being treated like a black kid, but he eventually realizes that, even in this unfair hellhole, he’s the beneficiary of all kinds of white privilege. Only by doing what he can to atone for his family’s original sin (exploiting and betraying a person of color) can he lift the “curse” that led him there. It’s a powerful tale, and all the more powerful for confronting the youngest of readers with these uncomfortable truths.

So why do we embrace this complex hero? Sachar will eventually complicate our feelings towards Stanley, but only after we intensely bond with him in the opening pages.

Believe: Stanley doesn’t just chalk up his terrible situation to bad luck, he blames his “no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing-great-great-grandfather”, which is compelling. He’s got an odd name that makes him unique. He’s overweight (unlike in the movie), and we get a specific example of what that’s like:

  • On his last day of school, his math teacher, Mrs. Bell, taught ratios. As an example, she chose the heaviest kid in the class and the lightest kid in the class, and had them weigh themselves. Stanley weighed three times as much as the other boy. Mrs. Bell wrote the ratio on the board, 3:1, unaware of how much embarrassment she had caused both of them.

If you’re a fellow writer, that the sort of example that makes you say, “there’s no way the author made that up, that really happened to the author or somebody he knows,” and those are exactly the sorts of details you want to make your writing come alive.

Care: The very next paragraph is just “Stanley was arrested later that day,” so obviously we’re going to care about his kid.

But let’s talk about another great way to get us to care intensely for any hero: Show that something horrible is about to happen to them, and then show that they naively expect the opposite. The book’s great first paragraph starts us off with an ironic contradiction:

  • There is no lake at Camp Green Lake. There once was a very large lake here, the largest lake in Texas. That was over a hundred years ago. Now it is just a dry, flat wasteland.

Then, after three pages describing the hellishness of the camp, we find out about Stanley:

  • Stanley and his parents had tried to pretend that he was just going away to camp for a while, just like rich kids do. When Stanley was younger he used to play with stuffed animals, and pretend the animals were at camp. Camp Fun and Games he called it. Sometimes he’d have them play soccer with a marble. Other times they’d run an obstacle course, or go bungee jumping off a table, tied to broken rubber bands. Now Stanley tried to pretend he was going to Camp Fun and Games. Maybe he’d make some friends, he thought. At least he’d get to swim in the lake.

We don’t know yet that Stanley has been falsely convicted, but we don’t care: This poor kid thinks he’s going to get to swim! Even if he’s killed sixty people, that’s heartbreaking. We will soon find out that our hero is there because of a crime he didn’t commit, but only after the book has established that no one deserves this punishment.

Invest: Like another hero we’ll discuss later, Stanley takes his injustice like a man, which is more impressive in this case since he’s just a boy. He doesn’t protest his innocence to anyone. In fact, he discovers an irony (and ironies are always good): “Nobody had believed him when he said he was innocent. Now, when he said he stole them, nobody believed him either.”

Another point: All of the men in Stanley’s family are convinced that they’re cursed, which can imply a certain lack of personal responsibility, but Sachar lets us know this key information:

  • All of them had something else in common. Despite their awful luck, they always remained hopeful. As Stanley’s father liked to say, ‘I learn from failure.’

Pluck is always an essential quality in a hero.

But wait, we’ve seen how Sachar gets us to believe in, care for, and invest in a hero, but Sachar, goes further, and in these opening pages, he also does the same for a villain, all in one paragraph!

Stanley has been driven out to a desert prison camp by a bus driver and guard and he’s being dropped off with a warden. Then the guard notices something:

  • ‘That’s a lot of sunflower seeds,’ the bus guard said.
  • Stanley noticed a burlap sack filled with sunflower seeds on the floor next to the desk.
  • ‘I quit smoking last month,’ said the man in the cowboy hat. He had a tattoo of a rattlesnake on his arm, and as he signed his name, the snake’s rattle seemed to wiggle. ‘I used to smoke a pack a day. Now I eat a sack of these every week.’

So right away, we…

  • Believe: Specificity of the sunflower seeds, which is not a detail that I’ve seen in a lot of books. 
  • Care: Trying to quit smoking and dealing with cravings. 
  • We even “invest,” though that’s a tricky word for a villain: He’s badass: He’s got a cowboy hat and a rattlesnake tattoo.

With a hero, obviously, we invest our hopes for a happy ending. But with a villain, we also have to “root” for him to be a good villain, and the hat and tattoo do that. Sure enough, further down the page, Stanley gets to know him:

  • The man in the cowboy hat spit sunflower seed shells into a wastepaper basket. Then he walked around the desk to Stanley. ‘My name is Mr. Sir,’ he said. ‘Whenever you speak to me you must call me by my name, is that clear?’
  • Stanley hesitated. ‘Uh, yes, Mr. Sir,’ he said, though he couldn’t imagine that was really the man’s name.
  • ‘You’re not in the Girl Scouts anymore,’ Mr. Sir said.

He then denies Stanley badly-needed water, we’re going to primarily boo-hiss him, but our enmity will be strengthened, not lessened, by our belief in him as a human being and our understanding of his one weakness. This is a real villain, not a fake one, and he’s all the scarier for that.